Imagine this… Some time ago you were finally able to give answers to these two questions, “Who am I, and what is my purpose in life?” While admitting the questions were rather philosophical as well as personal, you are suddenly thrown back to square one, and you once again want to find out who and what.
Like most people, my answers came and went as every meaningful tide in life left a new imprint on my senses.
Philosophical and intuitive tendencies have always been part of my mindset as I enjoy delving in what makes human beings, human (being an INFJ personality doesn’t help). When an unlikely MS diagnosis, however, turned into more than just a rough sea a few years after finding answers, it forced me to rethink both questions and realign future purposes with new or updated normals.
Aside from the frightening aspect of an MS diagnosis, the idea that the very framework of what made me into who and what I am would need to be rebuilt, was nothing less but daunting. After all, had I not just been through the complete philosophical checklist of “Who, what, why, when, how” when I moved to Ireland?
Twelve years later, I am still asked what it felt like being diagnosed with a neurodegenerative illness in a foreign country. My reply has been the same since day one, “Probably the same wherever you are because MS doesn’t discriminate whether you are in a foreign country or not. It just means that I will do a lot more medical sightseeing with all the hospitals I will be visiting from now on.”
All jokes aside, any diagnosis of a chronic illness is so life-changing you feel like you’ve been dealt a badass blow to your stomach – never mind your confidence. You feel its impact not just once, not just twice, but for as long as you are trying to grasp what just happened within that one minute of hearing, “You have MS.” To me, it felt like I ran blindfolded into a gargantuan door that refused to budge.
That door, while not as imposing like Auguste Rodin’s Gates of Hell, became the symbol of a new trek into the unknown. That door begged me to be open to this new challenge, to learn how to bend a negative situation into a positive one. To be able to accept that confrontation, a new way of living was required, quite like I had done when I moved to Ireland 2.5 years prior.
This time, however, it was of utmost importance to create, nurture and maintain a new type of support network to enhance my chance of successfully living with an illness I knew nothing about.
As time progressed, I learned to adjust to a new life beyond my diagnosis. Brain atrophy was in full swing, yet my mind was in an almost constant state of growth, and my purpose in life became clearer as each day passed.
The first lesson came down to this, “I had 0% responsibility in being diagnosed, but I do have 100% accountability in what I do with that diagnosis now. First task: being my own best friend.”
To paraphrase Aristotle, I was still more than the sum of my parts, and I had to learn to acknowledge that fact. The 100% accountability started as bonds with family and friends who knew that I was more than just my illness became stronger, while others who thought that I was nothing more than my illness needed to be cut.
A healthy mind, as well as a healthy lifestyle, were required therapy. More specifically, the brief stated that you cannot let anyone run through your mind with dirty feet. I quickly learned that people are free to think what they like about me. Should I find myself upset over what someone thinks, that would ultimately be my problem and mine only. If I wanted to be my own best friend, so, I had to let others think what they like because I knew that I was still more than the sum of my parts.
Mental growth told me that blaming something that happened over a decade ago is immature and speaks of utter laziness and an unwillingness to address the issue. As I look back on the 10+ years since my diagnosis, I can easily say that it has been the most educational, reflective, emphatic, serene and hopeful period in my life. Despite being a work in progress with maddening pain and fatigue issues, the philosophical “Who, what, why, when, how?” questions in life were eventually answered with satisfaction.
Today, I joke about not being perfect or about my mind behaving like a repetitive software update that refuses to stick after a few busy days. I may add that my bones rattle and that I have a Club Med-type relationship with three different hospitals, my primary care physician and my pharmacy. Or, I forget my name, fall asleep at fancy receptions, need an hour to cut three peppers and two onions and sometimes need to nag to myself to get things done.
In the end, I can only reflect on the fact that we all start each day with the same 24 hours ahead of us, and that nobody is any different or more adept in knowing what that day will bring. Each one is another opportunity to be better than the day before, and each day is another 24h to grow mentally.
Stop the blame game, the what-if questions, the negativity and godawful wallowing in self-pity. Instead, seek the silver linings, the happy ones, the acceptance and joy in the “just be” moments and in the realisation that what you have, could be worse, much worse.
As for the quest for answers my purpose in life? Writing for others with chronic illnesses and being a disability and patient advocate. Making family and friends happy; continue studying psychology; being there for those less well-off and most of all, maintaining that 100% accountability.
8 Ways to Live with a Chronic Illness (World of Psychology)
7 Traits of Happy People with Chronic Illnesses (MD Junction)
©Willeke Van Eeckhoutte and Ireland, Multiple Sclerosis & Me, 2011-2017. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Willeke Van Eeckhoutte and Ireland, Multiple Sclerosis & Me with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.